Summer programs for high school students can be great. But how do you pick one given all the choices?
There are summer programs on college campuses (some taught by the host college’s faculty, many not), adventures that take you into the woods or off to sea, service trips all over the globe, academically-oriented forays to foreign countries and, no doubt, others that I have not heard or thought of. The big question: which one, if any, should I choose for my child.
Recently, I queried a friend of mine who is a counselor at a fancy-pants prep school on the East Coast about a specific summer program outfit. He didn’t have information on the group I was investigating but opined that the value of these trips is largely their intrinsic value, a point with which I agree. Those of us who have been in the college admissions business a long time often have come to the same conclusions about things, but it is always reassuring to hear that someone you respect shares a view that you hold.
So, instead of asking, “Which program is most likely to help my kid get into college?”, consider the following instead.
What will your son or daughter take away from a program that catches your eye? If she comes back from a trip feeling bolder and more curious, thirsting for other new experiences, exhibiting new degrees of compassion or understanding a different culture (as opposed to simply appreciating new and beautiful places and trying funny food), that is great. If she comes back with a passion for something she encountered or studied on her trip, that’s a bonus. If she pursues that special thing independently after returning, that is a home run…but also rare.
In general, colleges are much more concerned about how a kid grows from a trip than what trip they did. Your child might have an experience that is so impactful that she writes about it in a college essay, or maybe it is something she mentions in a short answer question from a college or in an interview on campus. Or maybe she just expands her world view and returns home a better and more interesting human.
Many programs on college campuses serve as introductions to academic areas, such as English or biology, which is all well and good but usually pales in comparison to simply taking the best classes your high school offers in those subjects. However, for a student who thinks she may be interested in studying something outside of the liberal arts, let’s say engineering, for example, a good summer engineering camp can help confirm or discourage that inclination. That can save some floundering around in college.
For students who want to present themselves as budding intellectuals with the desire and wherewithal to really, really learn, actual research in an academic area is a gold standard. If a student can describe having done notable and sophisticated research, likely under a professor’s direction, that’ll catch a college’s attention. But typically such opportunities are arranged through a one-off connection to someone in a particular field of interest rather than through an organization offering summer programs. And, how many kids are truly interested in, and ready for, doing such in-depth research in high school?
So, I’d think about it like this: Does a program sound really interesting? Possibly inspiring? Might it ignite a spurt of meaningful personal or intellectual growth? And, most importantly, is your kid excited to do it? If the answers are “yes,” I’d set it up (after, of course, doing some due diligence to make sure the program is safe and well run). So much of successfully preparing your child to apply to college comes down to simply doing what is best for them as they stand before you today. Forget trying to figure out what things colleges will like most and just remember the test: Will This Experience Help Your Kid Become a Better and More Interesting Human? You’ll know what to do.